We’re only two rounds into the new Formula One season but 2019 has most certainly been unkind to Williams.
The once great British team has endured a woeful start to the year, doubly so given this was supposed to be the beginning of a recovery rather than the bottoming-out exercise it has become.
At both races so far Williams has taken the chequered flag last of all finishers, with George Russell and Robert Kubica finishing at least a lap down in Melbourne and Sakhir.
Worse, in both Australia and Bahrain Williams was on average 103.26 per cent slower than the fastest car in Q1. The next-worst team was only 101.61 per cent off the pace.
That gap equates to an average of 1.409 seconds between the fastest Williams and the slowest midfield car when an average of 1.382 seconds has covered the entirety of the rest of the field in Q1. The chasm separating Williams from everyone else is substantial.
The steps that led Williams to what will almost certainly be the worst season in its history have been well chronicled but bear repeating in the context of the team’s road to recovery.
Under the tutelage of chief technical officer Paddy Lowe the historic team was expecting to bounce back from its ambitious but undriveable FW41, the car that delivered it its lowest-ever constructors standings finish.
Lowe was supposed to have been Williams’s secret weapon. Having been poached from Mercedes to begin work at the start of 2017, the superbly credentialed Englishman – Lowe has been part of seven title-winning campaigns, including three constructors crowns and four drivers titles – wrote off his disappointing 2018 machine as being beyond the team’s circumstances. In 2019 the lessons learnt over the preceding 12 months would be put into practice.
But the plan went awry. For reasons yet to be clearly elucidated, the car’s gestation was four and a half days behind schedule and missed two and a half days of crucial preseason testing, and when the FW42 did finally take to the track it was painfully slow.
The weight of shattered expectation and embarrassment was too great, and Paddy Lowe began his indefinite ‘leave of absence’ before the first race of the season.
The inevitable end of Lowe’s brief tenure makes the fourth significant departure from Grove in 12 months. Chief designer Ed Wood, head of aero Dirk de Beer and head of vehicle performance Rob Smedley all left the team in 2018, and the last-listed position remains unfilled today alongside Lowe’s effectively vacated role.
The team continues to review how its 2019 campaign has gone so wrong so quickly, but it’s clear the year will have to be written off in its own right and used instead as preparation for 2020 and beyond.
But clear too is that the Williams structure isn’t fit for purpose. With two gaping holes in the technical department yet to be filled in a hierarchy that has failed to deliver, change must be sweeping and undertaken quickly.
Enter Sir Patrick Head.
Seven years after formally ending involvement with the team he co-founded, the legendary F1 designer has returned to Grove on a short-term consultancy basis with the intention of setting the squad onto the right path.
“I think it will be great,” George Russell said, as per Autosport. “He’s a very strong character with a lot of personality, and maybe [that’s] what we need at the moment.”
Some will doubt how effective the opinions of the 72-year-old former co-owner will be given the strife enveloping the team, but the value of a third-party-guided rebuild shouldn’t be underestimated, and nor should the potential for recovery – look no further than McLaren as evidence that a bounce back could be just around the corner.
The Woking team, having finally come to the painful conclusion last season that its own technical shortcomings were as much behind its lacklustre form between 2015 and 2017 as was the Honda motor, has embarked on a comprehensive reconstruction that is already bearing fruit.
Out went chassis chief Tim Goss, chief engineering director Matt Morris and racing director Eric Boullier in 2018; in came two-time CART champion Gil de Ferran as sporting director and former Porsche LMP1 boss Andreas Seidl as F1 director.
Naturally these personnel changes can’t have had an immediate impact on the 2019 car’s fundamentals – indeed Seidl only started work at the team this year – but changes to the technical department last season as part of Zak Brown’s five-year plan to return to competitiveness were early enough to pay some dividends, with the MCL34 representing a breakthrough on its predecessor.
Indeed Lando Norris was quick enough in Bahrain to tussle with Max Verstappen’s admittedly out-of-sorts RB15, and although this is a distorted picture of relative competitiveness, it’s clear McLaren is well in the midfield mix.
Decisive action can save Williams too, and accepting it has a problem will prove to be the first step towards recovery. With Sir Patrick advising on a technical structure and recent financial statements showing the business is still profitable, the British constructor is well positioned to rebound in time to meet the new technical regulations due to come into force by 2021.
Williams faithful are destined to endure a difficult 2019, but there’s hope for the hurting’s future team yet.